In nineteenth-century novels, there was time to admire the scenery and get to know the characters at our leisure. There might be an entire chapter devoted to the lovely English countryside before we ever met Squire Greenfield, and we might have tea with the good squire in his drawing room in chapter two, admiring the paintings that his grandfather had collected and getting a firm sense of the squire’s character before the first glimmer of a problem, and a plot, would appear in chapter three.
But twenty-first-century readers want their novels to start with a bang. If they are going to have a description of the lovely English countryside, they want that description to come in the midst of a wild chase, or at least a desperate argument. Readers, and editors, expect the story to supply setting and characterization on the fly. Characterization has to be carried out after the action has started, with everything that a character thinks, does, or says, along with the reactions of characters to one another, gradually revealing to us the nature of the story’s imaginary people. In contemporary novels, we get to know characters the way that we get to know people in life: gradually, after seeing them in a variety of circumstances.
Naturally, this sort of gradual revelation of character can’t work in flash fiction. Sometimes, this hardly matters. The characters in much flash fiction are ciphers whose role is to reveal an idea or act out an episode, and the idea, the episode, or even the way that the story is told is the real star of the story. A common convention in flash fiction is to tell the story without giving the characters names, a sure indication that the individuality of the character is not necessary for the story.
But there are stories in which it is vital that the hero of the story be, say, immensely compassionate. The set-up of the story requires that the protagonist care deeply about the suffering of others. How can the writer establish this characteristic?
One way is to resort to some unfashionable techniques. The era of the leisurely novel was also the era of the trusted omniscient narrator who could simply tell the reader things and be believed. We have the example of Moll Flanders making her living as a prostitute and thief while the novel’s narrator assures us that in spite of what we see her doing, Moll is a good person.
Novelists don’t use this omniscient authority in a straightforward way any longer because a novel’s readers are not going to trust it. I think that eighteenth-century readers had rather different notions of both psychology and authority, so they could be convinced, on the authority of the narrator, that Moll’s essential nature was good and virtuous even as she was delighting in a clever plan to cheat a man of his money.
Contemporary readers would see irony in any contradiction between what a narrator said was true and what the reader could see for herself. She would not believe that Moll was, at heart, a good person in spite of the evidence. Novelists now can use an omniscient narrator, but readers will be a little suspicious of what they are told as opposed to what they learn for themselves.
This is, in part, what underlies the advice to “show, don’t tell.” Unfortunately, taking advice without understanding why it has been given makes it hard to know when to ignore the advice, and there are plenty of times when a writer can safely ignore “show, don’t tell.”
Flash fiction in general allows for satisfying stories that are told rather than shown. For many readers, a short-short story isn’t long enough to allow them to become fully immersed in the reality of the story, so it matters little if the story doesn’t create the little dream of events unfolding as if before the reader’s eyes. And perhaps more to the point, in a short-short, there isn’t room to convince the reader of very much by showing. The reader is as likely to believe what she is told as she is to believe what she can be shown in only a few words.
Telling a story can be almost as entertaining as showing it. It is true that what the writer tells is apt to be less dramatic than what is shown, but even a reader who is a little bored by being told that a character is compassionate can see that the boredom won’t last long. The story is very short. It is either going to transition into a scene soon or, if not, will soon be over anyway.
Another technique that the writer can use in flash fiction is to write the story about a character that the reader already knows well. Take the example of the character who, for the sake of the story, must be deeply compassionate. Make the main character Jesus or Buddha, and most readers will see exactly the character your story needs.
Historical figures are ideal for this purpose if they are well known, and known for the personality that you want to convey in the story. Legally, any real person who is dead is safe for you to use as a fictional character. The dead are not considered to have reputations to protect, so what you write about your fictional version of Michael Jackson won’t result in a libel judgment against you.
Using characters from literature is a more ambiguous situation. Certainly a writer is not free to use characters in another writer’s works that are protected by copyright. But even when the writer’s work has passed into the public domain, the writer’s estate may have registered the characters as trademarks. Trademarks, unlike copyright, are forever. As long as someone keeps re-registering and defending the trademarks of Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, those are two characters who can’t safely appear in your own stories.
Another problem with literary characters is that so few of them become real cultural icons the way that generals, politicians, or movie stars often do. Will most readers have a stronger impression of Hamlet, or of Marilyn Monroe?
Three common settings for well-known figures as flash fiction characters are (1) their natural setting, (2) a generic setting, and (3) a contemporary, realistic setting.
Michael McFee’s brilliant story “The Halo” is narrated by Mary, who tells how Jesus was born with his halo and played with it as a boy, embarrassing Joseph to the point that he made Jesus put the halo in a box and bury it. Most readers know some version of the life of Jesus, and this story simply recounts a part of that story that we hadn’t heard before. Jesus is in the context we know.
The generic setting of other stories may conventional (Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King sitting on a cloud), or so bland that it isn’t mentioned (Jesus and Buddha drinking tea together, with no indication of their surroundings).
Alternatively, well-known figures can appear in a context entirely different from the one we know them for. I once wrote a series of such stories using key figures from the American War of Independence. In some ways, what I attempted was the opposite of the usual strategy. Much of what we think we know about our founding fathers is either wrong or only part of the story. Paul Revere never completed his famous ride. Patrick Henry, famous for “Give me liberty or give me death!” also hedged his political bets and wasn’t entirely trusted by the more steadfast founders.
In these stories, then, I was bringing these historical figures into my own times and writing stories that depicted what I see to be their true characters. Sometimes they live up to the popular impression of them. Sometimes they don’t. But I’m relying on the reader having an impression of them already that I can either affirm or debunk.
Writing stories about well-known characters allows the writer to rely on impressions that the reader will already have as soon as the character is named.
For an example of a story involving George Washington, read “President of Baseball Operations” in this issue.
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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© 2015 Bruce Holland Rogers